His father showed him how to bait his hook but told him he was only going to do it for him once. “Once that worm falls off, you’re on your own,” his father had said, and the worm had fallen off the first time he’d dropped his line down the hole in the middle of the dock. His older sister had already caught her first fish, and the grown-ups had given her a big cheer.
“Go on, get yourself another worm,” his father said, and he tried to pick one out of the can with his fingers.
“Maybe you want to try a minnow,” his grandmother said.
“They’re more slipperier,” he said, and the adults all laughed.
“You mean slippery,” his sister said, looking back a little over her shoulder at him as she continued to fish down the hole.
He fumbled with the worm and noticed how it was dark in spots and light in others. He didn’t mind the dirt but he couldn’t get the hook to go through the skinny body.
“I got another one,” his sister said as she pulled another crappie out of the water.
“Have you got that worm on yet?” his father asked, a little anxious that the boy seemed so inept.
“I think so,” he said. He had in fact managed to get the hook through one end of the worm. He had tried to get it on the middle, figuring it was more likely to stay put that way, but the worm had wriggled when he stabbed it. He dropped his line into the square and waited; he thought he felt something but when he pulled up there was no resistance and when his hook emerged there was nothing on it and the worm was gone.
His face reddened and his mother came over to comfort him.
“You’ll get one soon, honey,” she said as she hugged him. She smelled of perfume and cigarette smoke.
“C’mere little fella,” his grandfather said as he stood up from the picnic table on the floating dock and came over to help him. “You’ve got to think of that pole as part of your arm, like it’s there and it’s not there. That way you’ll feel the fish when it bites.”
He didn’t know what that meant.
“I got another!” his sister yelled, and his father went over to help her get it off her line and into the wire creel.
His grandfather picked a minnow from the bucket and said “You’re just havin’ bad luck here, kiddo.” He got the minnow on the hook and said “Now go find your water.”
“Where’s my water?”
“That’s just an expression. It means someplace where the fish are bitin’ for you.”
“Well, how about over there, on the other dock?”
The next dock over was a boat dock, not a fishing dock, and it didn’t come with the house they’d rented, but his grandfather didn’t know that.
“Where are you going?” his mother asked as they walked off the plank to the rock beach.
“Just gonna try the fishin’ over there,” the grandfather said.
“That’s not our dock,” the mother said.
“There’s nobody there, they won’t mind,” the grandfather said.
They walked over to the other dock where there were two motorboats tied up. The boy wished they had a motorboat at their cabin, but they didn’t so they had to fish all the time.
“It’s hot here, grandpa,” the boy said. There was no shade, unlike at the fishing dock where there was a roof to keep you cool.
“I don’t want him getting sunburned,” his mother called out from the shade. “That’s why I have them on the dock, not on the shore.”
“He needs a little room to fish, that’s all.”
“I got another one,” his sister called from the dock. “That’s five!”
“Well, can you at least put some sun lotion on him?” his mother said. “I’ve got some Sea and Ski here.”
“All right,” his grandfather said. “You go ahead and fish here,” he said to the boy, “I’ll go get the lotion.”
The boy started to drop his line into the water, but stopped when he noticed a fish floating there. He bent over to look at it and poked it. It moved a little but no more than a stick would have if he’d pushed it, so he figured it was dead. He looked over at the other dock and saw his mother hand a green plastic bottle to his grandfather. He figured he had enough time and reached in the water to pick up the fish.
He laid his pole down on the dock and placed the fish down next to the hook. He worked the hook into the fish’s mouth and dropped the line back in the water.
As his grandfather approached he pulled the line out of the water and said “Look grandpa, I caught a fish!” with an enthusiasm he knew he was faking but couldn’t help, he wanted the fishing to be over so much.
“You did?” his grandfather said, excited for the boy. He quickened his step as he approached but as he got closer he seemed to deflate. He saw that the fish was dead, and it sank in after a moment that the boy hadn’t caught a fish and had lied about it.
“You know that fish is dead, don’t you?” he said, squatting down so he could look the boy in the eye.
“I guess,” the boy said. “But I caught him and I don’t want to fish anymore.”
The old man took the fish off the hook and threw it back in the water.
They walked back to the fishing dock and the grandfather handed the fishing pole to the father. “Did I hear you say you caught one?” the father asked the boy.
“I did,” the boy said, “but it was dead.”
The grandfather looked at the father with a trace of a scowl on his face. “I don’t think he’s going to be much of a fisherman,” he said.
The father looked down at the boy, who was looking away - still wondering where his water was.
“C’mon, let’s go back up to the cabin,” the grandfather said, and they started the long climb up the stone steps.